Even though law-enforcement agents gunned down the notorious bank robber John Dillinger in public, rumors quickly spread that he was still alive. The idea that legends can’t die easily clearly inspired author Thomas Mullen, who devotes his second novel to gangsters who truly do rise from the dead.
The Many Deaths Of The Firefly Brothers begins after the death of partners-in-crime Jason and Whit Fireson. When they awaken in a police morgue, riddled with bullet holes, they set about trying to remember how they got there, while alternating between denying their resurrection and trying to figure out its meaning. Meanwhile, they go right back to robbing banks.
Much as he did in his debut novel, 2007’s The Last Town On Earth, Mullen sets his story in a particularly terrible time for America, then uses the setting to analyze human nature and aspirations. His portrayal of The Great Depression is purely dark: He repeatedly mocks the American dream, showing that hard work can’t stand against the cruel whims of forces beyond individual control. The images he paints of vacant homes once occupied by people who have simply disappeared are just as haunting as the more visceral descriptions of the effects of starvation.
Many Deaths alternates chapters between character perspectives, primarily the Firefly brothers and their non-criminal sibling Weston. The mechanism works well when it’s used to show how differently people react to the country’s economic downfall, running the gamut from self-loathing to revolutionary rage and desperate hope. But Mullen gets repetitive when showing how the brothers all deal with the family crisis that now defines their relationships; in particular, he feels the need to restate the details of their father’s fall three times.
In spite of the gloomy setting, Many Deaths features all the charm that makes period gangster stories so popular. The pages are fully stocked with fedora-wearing, Tommy-gun-toting men, who are divided between villainous brutes and charming gentlemen criminals loved by a public in need of something to cheer for. While the novel’s premise is fantastic, much of the information it includes about the economy, other gangsters, and the beginnings of the FBI is factual. But at its core, the book is a beautifully painted story about family and the lies people tell themselves about the ones they love.